Why students leave college—and how to bring them back

A new study by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and online education company StraighterLine explores why students discontinue their college pursuits and highlights several interventions that could help re-engage these “stopped out” students.

The survey results include responses from 1,021 people ages 20 to 34 who were contacted in spring 2021 and had left school with some credits but no degree. Financial reasons were the most-cited barrier, mentioned by 42 percent of disengaged learners. Thirty-two percent pointed to family or personal commitments, and 30 percent said the college wasn’t the right fit.

When looking solely at respondents ages 20-22, researchers saw a slightly different dynamic, with 43 percent of those respondents citing wrong fit as the primary culprit, and just 35 percent pointing to financial reasons. Across all age groups, however, personal goals stood out as the strongest motivator for pursuing higher education, eclipsing even career advancement and love of learning.

Related: 3.5 million stopped-out college students identified as ‘potential completers’ >

What can colleges do to re-engage students?

Around 65 percent of the respondents said they were earning $50,000 or less a year, signaling that cost will be a key factor as institutions work to re-enroll stopped out students. “Prospective returners are working with tight budgets,” Amy Smith, StraighterLine’s chief learning officer, told Higher Ed Dive. “The desire might be there, but the funds just aren’t.”

Timely re-engagement also is crucial, Smith said, as students are more likely to feel satisfied with their institution soon after their departure. “Student perceptions change over time,” Smith said in a release. “The longer they were gone from that school, the more negative opinion they had of the school and the less likely they are to re-engage.”

Asked what colleges could do to bring them back, survey respondents identified several key supports. Around 70 percent said they would like institutions to provide certificate credentials for credits already earned. Sixty-two percent said they’d like lower-cost courses, 58 percent wanted workshops addressing common struggles, 55 percent said counseling would help, and 46 percent expressed interest in concierge services.

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